Months ago I heard that Netflix would be streaming every episode of every Star Trek series ever and my first thought was “Cool, I’ll get to finally give Deep Space Nine a proper go!” Now that this wonderful little prophecy has come to fruition, I’m left waiting until October to watch DS9 and have to settle for dumb old Voyager…
Okay, so my opinions about Voyager are under cooked at best. I watched the first couple of seasons religiously when they originally aired because, just like when The Phantom Menace was released I had no choice. While my true gospel was written by Luke, Han and Leia, I was also raised by two faithful Trekkers. The Next Generation was on constantly between new episodes and syndicated re-runs and when DS9 and Voyager each started we naturally worked them into our Sunday night routines. But with both cases we all sort of got bored after a while. A Star Trek without The Enterprise is a different animal (as is a Star Trek with an Enterprise no one ever asked for, but I’ll talk about that when I get around to watching it). DS9 was weird because of it’s non-Starfleet setting and characters, but I’ve been told–and to some extent can see it in what little I remember–was very ambitious and excellent for various reasons that are wholly different from what worked with TNG. With Voyager I think I was just suffering from:
A) Star Trek Fatigue (STF)
B) Feeling the need to choose between the Stars, Wars and Trek (Guess which one I went with…)
The premise is both exciting and frustrating: Take a clean-cut Federation crew and their brand new ship and throw them 75 years away from the closest thing resembling home, plus stick them with a bunch of people who don’t really like them all that much. The danger and narrative potential of that sort of isolation from all that is Star Trek was awesome. No Klingons, Romulans or Vulcans–besides the ones on the Voyager crew–to rehash old stories and no starbases to patch up and refuel a ship with limited resources. Of course that’s a big promise to make, and indeed probably the reason why I eventually cut Voyager out of my TV diet. The status quo never changed. The crew, and the ship, seemed to be doing fine each week. Where was the hardship of wandering an unknown part of the galaxy?
As time went on things may have gotten tough for the Voyager crew, but in the first two season I watched it never seemed to be an issue. My knowledge of Voyager is as the weirder of the two non-Enterprise series. I don’t think I even stuck around long enough to see a 7 of 9 episode. I only knew her as the hot new character that wound up on lots of magazine covers.
So while I wait eagerly for DS9 I think I’ll chip away at Voyager, even if it doesn’t deliver on its premise–and if you ask former Star Trek writer/producer and Battlestar Galactica show-runner Ronald Moore it doesn’t.And so, season 1, episode 1: Caretaker.
The episode starts with a Star Wars-esque text scroll that quickly gets you the information you need. The Maquis are a group of separatists formed by colonists and Starfleet defectors after a treaty is signed between the Federation and the Cardassians. Me meet a small Maquis crew as they evade a Cardassian warship into a Plasma storm, only to be swept up by an energy wave.
Cut to Star Trek’s first female captain–as a series lead, there had been other high ranking ladies–Katheryn Janeway as she recruits former Starfleet officer/captured Maquis prisoner Tom Paris. As a crack pilot with first-hand knowledge of the Maquis, Paris is a prime candidate for a rescue mission to retrieve the lost Maquis ship and Starfleet’s undercover agent/Voyager’s security officer, a Vulcan named Tuvok. Paris agrees in exchange for his release and essentially takes on the emotional core of the episode. Paris is a fuck up. His father, a Starfleet admiral, is disappointed that he was kicked out of the fleet. The Maquis see him as a mercenary with no loyalties to anyone or anything besides a paycheck. He doesn’t even seem to like himself very much, but when he strikes up a friend ship rookie Harry Kim he begins to show he’s not as heartless as everyone figures him to be.
Paris, a cocky space jockey in the Han Solo mold is what’s wrong with this episode. As a character he works well and stands out among the Star Trek mainstays–Tuvok standing in for Spock/Data as the token voice of logic and eye brow raising, B’Elanna in for Worf as the rage-prone loner, etc.. The problem is making the episode so much about him trying to prove that he’s not a dick. We’re meeting a new crew (two, sort of) for the first time and no one really gets of a chance to introduce themselves. Janeway has a couple of nice moments–a video call with her fiance about watching her dog, a moment of guilt over not having enough time for Kim’s mother to send some of his personal effects–but for the most parts gets stuck doing generic captain stuff and dealing with the titular Caretaker, an aging entity who brought both the Maquis and the Voyager to teh Delta Quadrant to find an heir. The episode plays like a getting the band together story but doesn’t focus of the two people it should, namely Janeway and the Mauquis captain-turned-Voyager first officer Chakotay.
The first episode of TNG, for example, quickly hit on all of the principle characters and their quirks and the new ship but the meat of it was all about Picard stating clearly who he was and beginning to set the tone, by was of his trial on humanity’s behalf to Q, for what kind of show would revolve around him and his crew. The biggest challenge TNG had when it started was to prove it could live beyond the shadow of Kirk, Spock and Bones. DS9 had to prove it could be different enough from TOS and TNG to warrant existing on its own. When Voyager started there was a lot to be said for having a woman as captain, and in a boys club like science fiction, the series would have benefited from an episode built more around Janeway showing her crew and their uneasy Maquis allies just what she was made of.
The stakes were also somewhat lacking. While Kim and B’Elanna wrestled with the chance of dying from a cosmic STD (more or less) the Voyager crew pent little time worrying about how they were going to get home. True there was the initial thought that once they recovered their kidnapped crew members they could just get the Caretaker to send them home. In one of her few defining moments Janeway allows the Caretaker to die before sending them home, arguing that she wasn’t about to sacrifice the race of people he had been protecting in order to accommodate her and her crew’s convenience. This action comes a little too late in the two-part premiere to contradict what I said earlier, I still think Janeway wasn’t given as much as she should have been and the episode ends with a “buckle down and work hard and we’ll figure this out” speech. Compare that with, say, Adama’s grim yet barely-motivating speeches before taking the Galactica crew to hell and back and it feels more than a little bubble gum.
The other element that felt a bit rushed was the seemingly instant, conflict free assimilation–a scary word in the Trek universe–of the Marquis into the Voyager crew. One minute B’Elanna is calling Kim “Starfleet” like it’s a racial slur and them, in teh episode’s last scene, the Maquis are all wearing Starfleet uniforms. True they don’t have their own ship and Chakotay, as a means to appease the rebels, was made Janeway’s second in command, but it just seemed hard to accept that they’d be so willing to fall in line with something they were willing to fight against back home. Plus, you know, the fact that they are so far away from home make it seem all the more foolish. Why bother? When Starfleet stationed people at Deep Space Nine they didn’t draft everyone who was already there or change the dress code. As an asthetic and just a simple means of telling which faceless crew people wandering the Voyager halls belonged to which faction, why not keep the Starfleeters Starfleet and the Maquis looking like the rough and tumble bunch they were before hand?
So this all makes it sound like I hated the first episode of Voyager and will force myself to grind through the remaining 170+ episodes. Not true. I see the potential in Voyager and if anything knowing that it doesn’t necessarily live up to ALL of that potential–one episode in and the ship is trashed but then looks brand new by the end–should allow me to appreciate it for what it is: a noble attempt to take a starfleet crew, and its audience, out of familiar, comfortable waters and boldly go where no Star Trek series has gone before.
-I remember thinking Neelix was awesome and I’m glad that I still enjoyed his shenanigans. He’s the goofy alien sidekick Jar Jar Binks only wishes he could have been.
-The emergency holographic Doctor is also a really neat character who works almost as the anti-Data–an artificial life form who seems more irritated by organic sentient life than intrigued by it.
-Expect lots of Battlestar Galactica comparisons, especially when/if I make it to 7 of 9.